The general view of George Bush as a political chump during his ballyhooed trip to Poland, his tongue wagging out of control, has obscured his surprising success in forcing Secretary of State George Shultz into new policies designed to help Poland's masses and exploit the special problem Warsaw poses for Moscow.
For months Shultz has all but ignored the Soviet Union's most explosive Eastern European satellite. He has busied himself with the U.S.-Soviet summit, allowing green-eyeshade officials at the Treasury Department to stymie imaginative political policies just when they are most needed.
Bush's talks with the Communist dictator, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, lifted the Treasury's bar to the financial relief promised by President Reagan if political prisoners were released, as happened a year ago. With perhaps $200 million in International Monetary Fund aid now in sight, the United States can be formidable in pushing subtle policies to weaken Warsaw's ties to the Kremlin in the glow of glasnost -- if, as he says he will, Jaruzelski continues to improve Poland's human rights and adopts real economic reforms.
Instead of returning home the champ, to bask in well-deserved accolades, Bush came back suffering from the limp efforts at wit that lashed back in his own face. ''People don't react to him like Johnny Carson,'' a Bush staffer ruefully acknowledged on hearing Bush's crude comment on the high praise Solidarity's Lech Walesa had lavished on him. ''How many relatives does he have in Iowa?'' Bush said. ''That's the only thing I want to know.''
That two-liner, famously unfunny, was on a par with his witless remark last Friday that they ought to send Soviet tank mechanics to Detroit ''because we could use that kind of ability.'' Unwitting ridicule of American auto workers ranks with the vice president's haphazard sexist remark in the 1984 campaign about trying to ''kick a little ---,'' made after his debate with Geraldine Ferarro. It recalls his earlier, soaring praise for now-ousted Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos as a modern-day Thomas Jefferson.
These examples of Bush's chumpmanship have a common denominator. They invariably leaped into headlines. In the case of Poland, they diverted attention from the real success of Bush's visit: showing his ability to handle complex political assignments with foreign countries.
The switch of U.S. signals he engineered before going to Jaruzelski's office came after weeks of preparation. There was no help from Shultz but strong sideline cheers from mid-level State Department specialists and the politically potent Polish-American Congress. The congress sent Bush its July 15 position paper that zeroed in on the issue of IMF credits. It said that the ''reluctant and unprecedented toleration'' of an opposition in Poland is the result of Jaruzelski's ''high expectations of Western credits and rescheduling of debts.''
Agents of the congress, which represents many of the nearly 10 million Polish American citizens, told Bush privately that if he thought his Polish junket would automatically yield Polish American support for his presidential candidacy, he was dreaming. What was needed was a catalyst to snatch policy out of the hands of a hostile Treasury and a disinterested State Department and shape an activist role for the United States before it was too late. Jaruzelski had ousted all neo-Stalinists from his government, starting with former foreign minister Stefan Olszowski, but the Polish American leaders told Bush they conspire to return.
Bush began taking soundings of his own from Treasury Secretary James Baker III and from Zbigniew Brzezinski, among others. By early September, he had White House approval to open the way for easing Poland's financial crisis, on condition that genuine reforms of the economy will take place and that ''independent'' citizen movements will be permitted, with or without legal recognition. Brzezinski described the negotiations privately as having been ''handled with unusual skill.''
Thus, Bush opened the door for Jaruzelski to walk through -- if he wants to. He got his political payoff in a crowded ballroom in Chicago where he addressed 1,000 members of the Polish-American Congress by telephone hookup on Sunday. Bush was given ''terrific applause,'' according to Aloysius Maszewski, the congress president.
Was that the real Bush, the almost invisible champ of statecraft? Or is the real Bush the chump whose tongue gets him in trouble every other time he wags it?